Rancho Verde (Moreno Valley) head coach Pete Duffy has high expectations for 2008.
"We expect to improve on last year and hopefully win our league outright," he said.
Last year the Mustangs shared the Inland Valley league title with cross-town rivals Moreno Valley and Canyon Springs. A 39-22 loss to Colton in the CIF-SS Central Division quarterfinals ended their campaign, while their rivals went deeper into the postseason. Four Rancho Verde players have Division I scholarship offers, but the Mustangs will have to overcome the loss of several key players to live up to Duffy's expectations.
The biggest hole for the Mustangs to fill is on the offensive line. The Mustangs return three starters, but lose All-American tackle Tyron Smith, who is now at USC.
"It's pretty impossible to replace that," said Duffy.
Another question mark is the quarterback position. Gone is Justin Salazar, who threw for 2,798 yards and 32 TDs last year. Duffy will be counting on 6-foot-2, 205-pound sophomore Travis Champion to replace him. The pressure will be on Champion to produce big numbers in the Mustang offense, which passed almost twice as often as it ran last season.
"We've been throwing a lot this summer trying to get him ready," said Duffy.
Champion showed potential when he led the Mustangs to first-place at the Bonita passing tournament in June. They defeated Valencia of Valencia in the final, 42-12.
Rancho Verde's offense has a number of weapons. With the graduation of their top two receivers from 2007, the passing game will focus more on Terrence Miller. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound senior plays in the slot but projects as a tight end in college. He's picked up scholarship offers from Utah and Arizona after a junior year in which he caught 49 passes, 11 of them for touchdowns.
"Terrence is a natural ball-catcher with exceptional skills, but not overly fast," said Duffy, adding that Miller's size creates matchup problems for opposing defensive backs.
Daniel Jenkins returns as Rancho Verde's primary ball-carrier after averaging 9.1 yards per carry in 2007. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound speedster sees limited touches in the Mustangs' spread offense, but Duffy notes that they may run the ball more in 2008, depending on how Champion develops as a passer.
"Daniel can change directions at the snap of a finger," said Duffy. "He sees stuff before it happens and makes some pretty insane cuts."
The Mustangs return seven starters on a defense which held opponents to 14 points or less six times in 2007. The defense should be solid and will be anchored by middle linebacker Eric Martin. The 6-foot-2, 216-pound senior has already garnered 10 scholarship offers from Division I programs including Nebraska and Arizona.
"We play a 4-3, and we design the defense for him to make a lot of tackles," said Duffy.
Martin will be helped out by 6-foot-2, 194-pound safety Richard Spencer, who is considering offers from Syracuse and Nevada.
The roster isn't the only thing that has changed for Rancho Verde. The Inland Valley League expanded from five teams to eight and moved from the Central Division to the Inland Division, which includes perennial powerhouses Corona Centennial, Norco and Redlands East Valley.
"We're probably not as deep as a lot of those teams, but our top-end guys are as good as anybody," said Duffy. "It's a matter of staying healthy."
Rancho Verde will open the season at home on Sept. 5 against Fremont (Los Angeles). The game should be an easy win for the Mustangs (Fremont was 1-9 last season), but it holds special meaning for Duffy. He was head coach at Fremont for 10 years, winning an Invitational Division championship in 2003, his final season. Current Fremont head coach John Washington served as Duffy's defensive coordinator during his time with the Pathfinders.
"I think it's going to be great to see a lot of the guys," said Duffy. "I had a great experience there; I left on good terms."